Cinematic Releases: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Murder and sexual assault dominate the current news cycle. Every single day it seems we're reading about another beloved figure's sudden but complete fall from grace. The stories go back years, even decades. And as decent people read these stories, recoiling at the horror of these deplorable acts and empathizing with the victims and their families, a part of them must wonder, "Why did this take so long? Why didn't anyone do something about this?" Heinous crimes have many victims, which can make accountability a slippery slope, and it takes a brave person to step up and do something about it. 

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is the story of Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand), a woman fed up with the local police's failure to name a suspect for the rape and murder of her daughter. But what starts as an attempt to use humiliation to force accountability swirls into an emotional maelstrom that draws in an entire small town, pitting a broken woman against the authority that ultimately failed her. McDormand is one of those actresses that can absolutely sell any role she's put in, and in a career that plays as one continuous highlight reel this may be one of her best roles yet. Mildred is broken, but soldiers on with every ounce of resolve she can muster, willingly driving a divide between herself and the small town she lives in for the sake of shining a light on the real problem. We the audience don't always agree with how she goes about her business, but we certainly understand why she does what she does. Writer/director Martin McDonagh (In Bruges)'s witty, twisted, remarkable screenplay has a lot to do with this, but McDormand certainly brings a lot to this role. 

The supporting cast members are no slouches themselves. Woody Harrelson is the police chief of the small town, and the primary target of Mildred's frustration. Sam Rockwell turns in another terrific, perhaps even award-worthy, performance as a disturbed but complex local police officer. It would be easy to cast these two characters in particular as villains in a story of one woman's battle with incompetent authority, but Three Billboards is not that movie. There's an unexpected depth and complexity to these characters that 99 times out of 100 would be one-dimensional podunk Keystone Kops, and in the capable hands of next-level talents like Rockwell and Harrelson, their plights become as vital and riveting as Mildred's. Even past these two the cast is stacked, with small but pivotal performances by celebrated character actors such as John Hawkes and a particularly funny and sweet Peter Dinklage. 

And that is Three Billboards secret weapon: its wide range of raw emotions, high and low. The truly funny moments in the film are well-earned, hitting so hard that it often takes a moment to realize how well they've disarmed you until the story takes another surprising turn. It's tricky to say anything meaningful about the film in a review for a site that includes "spoiler-free" in its URL, as so many of its impactful moments blindside the audience with hilarity, or horror, or heartbreak. The story is busy but riveting, unfolding with impeccable pacing to a satisfying conclusion for our characters. 

For its heavy subject matter, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a remarkably easy watch. The film is a showcase for great actors playing remarkable characters, drawing the audience in and leading them through the full range of emotions at a swift and satisfying clip. Every element of Three Billboards, from McDonagh's sharp writing and directing to superhero flick veteran Ben Davis's striking cinematography, is easily among the career best work of its maker. But it's the flawed characters, particularly the lead trio of McDormand, Harrelson and Rockwell, that make the film flawless. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri handle a difficult and possibly awkward situation with biting wit, emotional rawness, and seemingly effortless grace to craft one of the year's best, most fascinating experiences at the movies. 

Share this review.

-Mike Stec